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Warsaw or Vienna; a vs city comparison and travel guide

Both Warsaw and Vienna are fantastic cities, but which is better for your city-break or holiday?

We understand your dilemma. There is a wealth of information about both cities, but little stating which is the better destination and more suited for your trip.
This article will provide our unbiased opinions of Vienna and Warsaw, and hopefully help you to choose the best city to visit.

The article is divided into the following sections, and can be jumped to using the underlined links:
1) Introductions -
2) City scores -
3) Which one should I, friends, or family visit? -
4)  When to visit and weather -
5) Who is the city suited for? -
6)  The perfect 48hours (with map) -
7) Tourism details (where to stay? airport details?)

Introduction to Warsaw and Vienna

At once cutting-edge and steeped in history, vibrant and packed with chilled-out parks, Warsaw is the beating heart of modern Poland.

The erstwhile epicentre of the great Habsburg empire, Vienna, is just as grand and glorious as you might expect. The Hofburg palace spreads is vast Baroque wings in the heart of the town, framing manicured gardens topped with equestrian statues. There's the Belvedere, a patchwork of orangeries and old court rooms. There are opera houses and theatre rooms and the elegant façades of the Schönbrunn. It's enough to keep the camera a-clicking for several days.

But Vienna isn't only about 18th-centry grandeur. This is a lived-in European capital. It's got gritty nightlife districts that offer up beating boat bars on the Danube. It's got handsome parks packed with pine forests and duck ponds. There are vibrant markets with food from all around the globe. And you've got one of the world's most active café cultures, with coffee shops where the likes of Freud and Trotsky were once regulars.

High-level summary for Warsaw and Vienna

Summary
Which city would I go to?
Vienna
Which one would I recommend to my parents?
Vienna
Which location for my 19-year-old cousin?
Vienna
Which for my food obsessed friend?
Vienna
Note: The above comparison does not consider the weather, and assumes travel at the best time of year (which is detailed later in this article)

The following sections compare the two cities and considers; how long to spend in them, when to visit, and provides suggested 48hours in each city (along with an interactive map). The final section is tourism practicalities and includes which airport to fly into, what district to be based in and how best to explore the city.
We hope that you find all of this information useful, in planning your next exciting trip!

Destination details

How long to spend in the city?

Vienna is big and brimmingwith sights. History buffs and culture vultures will want at least three or four days to check off the bucket-list attractions. That's because the mainstay palaces and the most immersive museums each deserve at least half a day to themselves. You'll also need some time to wander the Old Town area and hop the famous Viennese cafés.

If you're eager to explore all of the facets of Vienna, then you'll certainly need much longer than just your average city break. Whole weeks can be spent enjoying the buzzy squares and the statue-filled parklands. What's more, there are day trips aplenty in the region, ranging from the pine forests of the Wienerwald to the rising foothills of the Salzburger Alps.

Warsaw can be done quickly. Just a few days is all you'll need to see the Old Town, the Palace of Culture and Science, the grand parks, and the main museums. To squeeze the lot in, you'll need to make use of the extensive public tram and bus networks. It might be worth considering a 72-hour (36 PLN) ticket, which you can buy at newsagent kiosks.

Of course, if you've got extra time to spare, Warsaw will always be able to fill it. Once you've checked off the main attractions, there are stacks of more local sights, eateries, and activities to get stuck into. They include café hopping down in hipster Mokotow, tasting ethnic foods in multicultural Praga, and even day outings to the Kampinos Forest or the post-industrial city of Łódź.

Vienna in the summer can't be beaten. When the sun shines, the city's parks and bars come alive. The best weather is usually between June and August, but beware that things can get hot and humid, with temperatures cranking up over 30 Celsius. The good news is that there are some strands and swimming spots along the Danube for cooling off. If you prefer things a little milder, May and September are usually also dry and warm.

On the flip side, Vienna in winter is a real wonderland. The Austrian capital hosts some of the most enchanting Christmas markets in Europe. You'll find those brewing up hot chocolates and mulled wine on Rathausplatz and in the grounds of the Schloss Schönbrunn. They get into full swing in December, when it's common to get dustings of snow and sub-zero temperatures – boots and woollies will be required.

If you don't want to wrap yourself up in cotton wool and thermals every time you step outside, it might be best to avoid the winter months in Warsaw. From November to December, below-zero temperatures are normal in the Polish capital, along with icy rain, sleet and snow.

Most locals often say that spring and early autumn are the sweet spots. While summer's warm, it can often be humid, and there's no beach or ocean nearby to help you cool off. Months like April and May see milder days and cool nights, while September is prime time to wander the famous parks of Warsaw, as the trees begin to change colour and glow orange, ochre and yellow.

Warsaw really charms those who love fast-paced, buzzing capital cities. While the Old Town is a stunner, it's not the main show. Instead, you'll spend your hours exploring vibrant and lived-in neighborhoods that burst with fusion eats and fine dining. You'll embark on craft beer tours and have artisan breakfasts in kitschy cafes.

On the flip side, there's some seriously immersive history. The Warsaw Uprising Museum and the POLIN exhibitions are fine introductions to the struggle of the Polish people and Polish Jews during Nazi occupation. You've got the 800,000 pieces of the acclaimed National Museum to get through. And there are grand parks with Chinese gardens and monuments of Chopin.

Packing in handsome palaces, Austrian beer houses, Alpine forests, cool cafés, art-filled galleries, and a buzzy nightlife, Vienna satisfies all sorts of travelers. You can easily fill whole trips in the museums alone. Days can be whiled away flitting between coffee shops. Nights can be spent in opera shows or glugging frothy beers in hipster bars.

Don't go thinking that Vienna is the great Austrian outdoors. This might be the country of the Alps, but the mountains are still at least an hour's train ride to the west. What's more, there's not a beach in sight. The best that landlocked Central Europe can offer in the way of sand and water is a few artificial swimming areas along the River Danube.

48hours in Vienna
So, you only have two days in the Austrian capital? Get ready for an itinerary that's packed to bursting with all sorts. From Neo-Classical Habsburg mansions to strolls on the Danube canals to mornings in buzzy market areas, there's something for a whole host of traveler types in these parts.

Day 1: Morning on the Heldenplatz. This manicured urban garden is one of the most iconic squares in Vienna. The huge equestrian statue of Archduke Charles of Austria is what will probably catch the eye but remember that the plaza was also the place where Hitler announced the annexation of Austria in 1938. Nearby, the Hofburg stands proud.

On a quick, two-day itinerary, it's probably best not to delve inside. The exhibits can easily take hours on end, though it's a must if you're a lover of 18th-century European history. Take your photos of the mighty Neo-Classical exterior and then move straight to the streets to the west. They herald the Innere Stadt (the Old Town) of Vienna. Cobbled lanes and little archways form a maze here that's lovely to get lost in. A lunch stop (read: strudel stop) at Café Central is a doozy. Gold-leafed ceilings and elegant royal portraits gild the interior, though the main draw is sitting where Freud and Trotsky once sat sipping their coffees.

Later on, head north around the ring roads to the Sigmund Freud Museum. It's a fine introduction to the life and works of the founder of psychoanalysis, with the original doctor's couch that his patients would sit on. Beeline straight to Prater when the evening closes in. You can get there on the underground, emerging into Vienna's famous inner-city theme part with its twirling Ferris wheel and fairground attractions.

Prater amusement park Vienna

The Prater amusement park with its traditional rides and the Wiener Riesenrad Ferris wheel

Day 2: The early hours on the Naschmarkt offer some of the best people watching in the city. Fruit sellers call out prices while locals chow down on pretzels and white beer in the stalls. This vibrant bazaar is also the perfect place to grab any Viennese souvenirs and foodstuffs. A ubiquitous fix of palaces comes next. We'd recommend choosing one of the big two – the Belvedere Palace or the Schönbrunn. Both are stunning but the former is the easiest to get to. Both will also likely take a couple of hours, especially if you want to explore the sprawling grounds as well as the interior court rooms of the old Habsburg elite.

That will still leave some time in the afternoon to breeze over to the Danube Canal. Abuzz with boat bars and hole-in-the-wall eateries, it can help balance out the culture with a little hedonism. The district of Leopoldstadt is right behind, replete with hipster coffee joints and cocktail emporiums. An alternative way to cap off your weekend could be a jaunt to the hills of the Vienna Woods (the Wienerwald). They offer lookouts – and gorgeous sunsets – above the capital just behind the area of Hütteldorf.

48hours in Warsaw
This perfect first 48 hours offers a fun-filled and exciting introduction to life in the Polish capital. It's a cocktail of wartime history, art, and – of course – good old Slavic beer.

Day 1: Hit the Old Town of Warsaw as early as you can. That way, you'll avoid the crowds, and – on a sunny day – get to catch the gilded medieval-style frontispieces in some perfect photography light. You certainly won't want to miss a moment on grand Plac Zamkowy (Castle Square).
The Royal Castle that gives it the name is the star of the show, with its orange-tinged exteriors and Baroque domes. It, like the whole rest of the Old Town, is actually deceptively new. The entire district had to be rebuilt from ruins in the wake of WWII.

Wait for the folk from the Free Walking Tour under Zygmunt's Column. Their two-hour odyssey through this part of the capital really digs down into the unique mosaic of architecture. After that's done, you can hit Nowy Swiat and follow the route Polish monarchs once took in and out of the city. It's now a buzzing modern thoroughfare with dumpling taverns and beer halls (perfect for lunch).
Follow it all the way south and hop a few more blocks and you'll soon be in Łazienki Park. It's an icon of the metropolis. An evening stroll here could start with a vision of the huge Chopin statue and end with a sighting of the Classicist Temple of Diana. For dinner, where better than hipster Mokotow? The district has everything from Tex-Mex to stylish sushi bars.

Warsaw Barbican

The Warsaw Barbican (barbakan warszawski) dates from 1540, and was part of the fortifications that encircle the city

Day 2: A selfie stop outside of the iconic Palace of Culture and Science starts day two with a bout of Soviet architecture. A 237-metre spire of a building, it was a personal gift to Poland by one Joseph Stalin. From there, a few trams stops can whisk you over to the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The enthralling exhibits of that showcase the heroic efforts of Poland's underground resistance during the fight against the Nazis.
Afterwards, make straight for the riverside and the leafy Vistula Boulevards. They're a hubbub of life in the summer months. Dog walkers meet buskers and street entertainers right by the water. (An optional drop into the family-friendly Copernicus Science Centre is a great addition if the rain's a-pouring). For the evening, hip and elegant Praga awaits. That's arguably Warsaw's most stylish area, with Lebanese kitchens giving way to bohemian bars and cool coffee shops.

Warsaw has two international airports. There's the larger Warsaw Frederic Chopin Airport, which can be reached by direct train from Warsaw's main station on line S2 or S3. The smaller Warsaw Modlin International Airport is a hub for European low-cost carriers. To go from terminal to city from there, you can ride the private Modlinbus, or catch the loop train that goes to both airports and then Warszawa Centralna.

A big Polish presence and a welcoming local vibe means there's rarely trouble for tourists in WarsawPickpockets, angry bouncers in clubs, and the classic European taxi scammers are the most common frustrations beyond that. .

When it comes to picking a hotel, it's typically best to be on the western side of the Vistula River. Some of the very best accommodation choices hide amid the cobbled lanes and squares of the Old Town. Others sit within walking distance, by Mirow or the Palace of Culture and Science. Being on the far side of the river means finding some cool aparthotels in local's favourite Praga.

Vienna is among the safest and most liveable cities in the world – at least if the stats are to be believed. Of course, you'll need to have your wits about you as if you were traveling anywhere. Pickpocketing, fake tour guides, and taxi scams do occur, though they aren't common as in other European capitals.

The best arrival point for those flying is Vienna International Airport. It's a well-equipped, modern port on the south-eastern side of the capital. Direct S-Bahn trains link the centre to the terminals, or you can hop on the premium Railjet from Vienna Hauptbahnhof. There's also a shuttle link provided by AirportLines Bus, costing €13 per person, return.

Picking hotels in Vienna can sometimes be a tricky business. First-time visitors can't go wrong if they aim to stay in the Old Town (the Innere Stadt), but rooms there can be pricy and sell out fast. Good alternatives include the hip and happening district of Leopoldstadt (great for dining with a youthful vibe) and any of the blocks that come off Naschmarkt.

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